After much deliberation, we finally took the plunge and booked our flights to Nepal. Hiking in Nepal has always been a highlight of previous long trips to Asia and we were really looking forward to going back. Nepal always seemed to be bedeviled by strife and this year seemed no different. The devastating earthquake has been well documented at home but the recent fuel crisis (or blockade by India) has garnered considerably fewer headlines. It seemed that Nepal would be a no-go this year.
But something kept nagging us to go. Media images of post-earthquake Nepal seemed to suggest a country in total ruin. The current fuel crisis suggested a country on the verge of running out of vital commodities. As ever, Nepal always seems to cope with whatever shit is thrown at it. For sure, we saw plenty of collapsed buildings and the lack of gas pushed up transport and food prices but, on the whole, life went on as usual. Sadly, when Nepal is really in need of a ‘business as usual’ attitude from foreigners, tourists abandoned the country in droves. Numbers were down 50% in the Everest region, which ironically made for a more pleasant hike for those that made the effort.
The Everest region attracts 40,000 hikers per year and in the high season this leads to nose-to-butt hiking at trail bottlenecks and unseemly fights for beds in oversubscribed lodges. Not this year. There were plenty of times when we felt like we were the only trekkers on the trail.
Although the vast majority of trekkers march up the main trail from Lukla to Gorak Shep and back to visit Everest Base Camp (EBC) and Kala Pattar (for a stupendous panorama of Everest and her attendant peaks), there are plenty of alternate itineraries to consider. We decided on a 22-day itinerary, taking in the main Everest trail, the trail to Gokyo, and a few side valleys and peaks. If the main trail was the Everest Super Highway, then the Gokyo trail was the glorious back road with a more wilderness feel to it. Our initial itinerary was super-conservative since we were worried about our fitness but as our fitness improved daily and we became acclimatized to the altitude, we managed to combine a few legs and completed the trail in 19 days.
Getting to/from the trailhead at Lukla
Although a few hardy souls catch a bus from Kathmandu to Jiri and hike into Khumbu, we decided to save ourselves 6 days walking and fly into Lukla. The flight is expensive ($147 for 35 minute flight) and definitely not for the nervous flier. The planes are 20-seater turbo-props and the landing strip is at 2800m with zero room for error or second chances. The pilots fly by sight and there is no fancy technology to help land the planes. It is about as visceral as flying gets. The pilots leave the door open to the cabin so you can see the approach.
We flew in with Simrik Airlines and flew out with the somewhat chaotic Tara Air. All flights are subject to change due to weather conditions. We changed our flight date for our return, which led to a lot of confusion on the day. Basically, Tara Air will continue to fly planes back and forth to Kathmandu until there are no passengers left if the weather is good. You are given a flight time but that is somewhat fanciful. Guides in the know manipulate the system so that their (expensive) tour group clients get the priority on early flights. The whole seems lacks transparency leading to frustration and, often anger, among the battalions of trekkers trying to get to Kathmandu.
Guides and Porters
Although we have used guides and porters in Nepal in the past, we decided to go it alone this time. It is impossible to get lost on the trail and since we were in need of serious exercise, carrying our pack was part of the deal. If you have not been to Nepal before, I think it is definitely worth getting a guide since there is plenty of cultural interest on the trek that may be lost to you without someone to explain it. Having studied Tibetan Buddhism, the predominant cultural influence in Khumbu, I didn’t feel the need for a guide. You might want to consider a porter if you have not hiked at high altitude before. Guides cost around $25/day and porters cost $15/day. You are also responsible for insuring your guides and porters. You will also have to pay for their flights if you have arranged them in Kathmandu. The flights are subsidized for Nepalis, so budget around $50 per flight. Porters and guides are available in every village if you belatedly decide you need them. Often independent trekkers will pick up a guide or porter when crossing the high passes of Cho La, Renjo La, or Kongma La.
Every trekker pays $20 for a TIMS permit and $35 for the permit to enter Sagarmartha National Park. The TIMS system is meant to provide a means for tracking tourists on the trail. A good idea in principle since a number of trekkers have gone missing over the years but the permit is only checked on entering and exiting the park so it seems utterly pointless. You can arrange both permits in Kathmandu but they are also available at a check post near Namche Bazaar, the main town in Khumbu.
Since we had decided earlier in our travels not to travel to Nepal, we had sent most of our hiking gear home. No problem. We rented excellent sleeping bags (rated to minus 15C) for a dollar a day from Shona’s Alpine Rental in Kathmandu and we bought shirts ($4-7), gloves ($4), hiking poles ($7), thermal leggings ($3), hats ($4), and so on for a sum total of $93. A shirt alone would probably cost more than that at REI! The gear was all fake North Face, Leki, or local brands but used the same materials as stuff at home. We also picked up a few legit pieces of gear (wool socks and trekking pants) from the genuine North Face and Mountain Hardwear stores on Tridevi Marg, Kathmandu.
At the end of the trek, we donated most of our gear to a local charity. We both had one set of gear for hiking and one set for lounging about the lodges. I think we did laundry twice. Don’t worry, everyone else smells bad on the trail too!
Snacks and water
Since everything in Khumbu is flown in and carried up the trail by yaks or porters, snacks can be expensive. We loaded up on a few items in Kathmandu to keep costs down. We wanted to avoid using bottled water on the trail for cost and environmental reasons. A bottle costs $0.15 in Kathmandu and $2.50 in Gorak Shep. We relied on lodges for water from local streams, and we sterilized it using our trusty Steripen or chlorine tablets. Snacks are available at decent prices in Namche Bazaar if you have under stocked.
Communication, electricity and showers
Other than food, drinks, and lodging, the only expenses will be showers ($4), charging up devices ($2.50 to 3.50/hour), and Wi-Fi connections ($4-$10). We had four showers in 20 days (gross but others took less!); charged the Steripen twice; and decided to avoid the outside world and Internet.
Money and expenses
Our daily expenses averaged out to about $47 for the two of us. Rooms were typically $2-3 although we had one night that cost $11 since we needed a bit more warmth and coziness in Lobuche. We usually ate three big meals a day. It is best to stock up on Nepali Rupees in Kathmandu for the whole trek but in emergencies you can try your luck with the ATMs in Namche or exchange dollars with a moneychanger. Rates were surprisingly similar to the rates in Kathmandu.
The lodges charge minimal rates for beds and make their money from their restaurants. It is considered good manners to eat at the place where you sleep. Some lodges charge exorbitant room rates if you decide to eat elsewhere. Menus and food quality are pretty much the same at all lodges so it doesn’t really make sense to eat at different places. Rooms are very simple. All but one of our rooms had twin beds. To be honest, even if you are a couple it is better to take the twin bed option over a double bed since sleeping at altitude is a restless business and you are likely to get better sleep in your own bed. Most places provide some bedding but since it can get very cold at night it is necessary to bring along a sleeping bag. Almost all lodges will charge devices and provide Wi-Fi. Lodges typically heat the dining rooms at breakfast and dinnertime. The fuel of choice is the ubiquitous yak and nak dung. Toilets are usually Western style and often they are outside the main building, which is a real bummer since it is a rare night at high altitude when you don’t need to go! Hot showers are available everywhere and are typically gas-powered or solar. A hot shower sounds like a good idea but then you have to step out into the freezing cold. No wonder we had so few!
For flashpacker style trekkers, there are much posher lodges in some places. Not sure why you would want to pay $100 a night but it is there if you want it. Some of the lodges on the Gokyo trail are a little more rustic but one of our favorite days on trail was at the cozy lodge in Thore. The food was great and the atmosphere was fantastic.
Perfect! For once on this trip we had absolutely perfect weather. Blue skies every day and we had perfect views of the mountains. A freezing cold fog usually rolled up the valley around 3pm but that typically cleared up by the evening. Walking conditions were fantastic. Temperatures were pleasant and there was zero precipitation. At higher altitudes, we wrapped up warm (wind jackets) for early morning starts but typically we walked in base layers. At higher altitudes, it gets damn cold at night with temperatures plummeting to -20C/-4F. Windows were often frosted in the morning and water would freeze in our camel backs.
All trails in the area are extremely easy to follow. The Lonely Planet trekking guide to Nepal and a map of the area were very handy. Underfoot conditions were excellent, which is no surprise since the trails are set up for locals to move around from village to village rather than trekkers. Once in a while, we walked on a few patches of solid ice but this was never a major obstacle. All river crossings were via bridges, some of them spectacular strung high up above the rivers. Those crossing a high pass or walking to Everest Base Camp will have to cross glaciers but no ropes or crampons are needed in the regular season.
Day One: Kathmandu-Lukla-Phakding (Walking time: 2.5 hours. Elevation: Lukla-2800m; Phakding-2800m)
We left the hotel at 5am to get to Kathmandu Airport in time for our 6.30am flight. The airport opens at 5.30am so there is no point arriving earlier. The check in process is fairly chaotic and casual. The call for flights is a little haphazard so keep an eye on your airline rep since she is the only one likely to know what is happening. The tiny planes climb fairly rapidly as they need to haul ass over the foothills pretty quickly. We flew on a fairly cloudy day and we felt every single bump and turbulent event. The plane circles and banks a few times before attempting the landing. Since the pilots left open the cabin doors, we got a real pilot’s view of the landing. The strip is short and steeply banked to help the planes come to a very fast halt. Lukla has a pretty good safety record but a few planes have hit the edge of the landing strip or over shot.
Lukla is a one street town and exists mainly to service those at the end of their treks. There are numerous bars, cafes, and lodges. There is no point staying the night here on day one since you arrive very early in the morning. We ate a hearty breakfast at the Sunny Garden Lodge and headed on up the trail soon after. The trail undulated pleasantly up to our first stop, Phakding. We passed through numerous pleasant villages but were amazed at the amount of lodges there were. You would have to be fairly lame to stop for the day an hour out of Lukla! There is a particular lovely village soon after leaving Lukla called Kyangma. It was our first real taste of Khumbu culture. The local people, the world-renowned Sherpas, are adherents of Tibetan Buddhism. There are a numerous monasteries, mani walls, prayer wheels, prayer flags, and stupas that attest to their devotion. Kyangma has a lovely small monastery, a retreat cave, and an abundance of wheels, flags and manis.
Further up the trail, you enter the delightful town of Cheplung (2700m). From here you get you first view of the roaring glacier-fed river known as Dudh Kosi and your first view of a huge peak, Kusum Kangru (6367m). A short climb brought us to the delightful village of Ghat and its myriad mani walls and stupas. We were only a couple of hours into our trek but we were ecstatic that we had made the right choice to come here. We had talked about how much we had missed Tibetan culture on our trip and here it was in abundance already. We were also fairly surprised by our initial fitness levels. We had expected to be huffing and puffing away up the slopes for the first week but to be honest from hour one to the end we never once regretted not employing a porter.
Two and a half hours after setting out from Lukla we arrived at our first stop, Phakding. Why stop when we were feeling so good and with several hours of day light left? The major consideration when walking in the region is the altitude at which you sleep. Physically we could have pushed on but we ran the risk of sleeping at an altitude that could induce Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). If it was solely a matter of distance, we could have completed the hike in ten days or less. But, you are limited by altitude gain, which means that to stay safe you should not sleep more than 300m above your previous night. Inevitably, this means most days you walk for only 3-4 hours. We met the odd hiker short on time who disregarded the advice on AMS, but they never looked very happy and often they seemed quite ill. Thankfully, every stop had options for quick afternoon acclimatization hikes, which we took full advantage of.
At Phakding (2800m), we took the option to run up to Rimijung’s Pema Choeling Monastery. It was a splendid working monastery with a coterie of young monks energetically engaging in, er, football! The walk also had the advantage of adding another 300m to our acclimatization fund!
We stayed at the Snowland Lodge, which turned out to be the worst lodge of the trek! They were surprisingly miserable with their food portions, which is exactly what you don’t need and unusual on mountain trails in Nepal. We did meet a couple of characters here though that we ran into many times further up the trail. Bart was a young mountaineer from Krakow who was on a similar schedule to us, and ‘Singaporean Girl’ whose schedule defied medical advice! She was hoping to get to EBC and back in nine days. Bart was swilling down a pint of Khumbu Kolsch (‘Nepal’s first craft beer’) and looked a bit worse for wear. In fact, every time we met Bart he looked exhausted but he soldiered on and even crossed one of the treacherous high passes.
(Breakfast-$9; Lunch-$12.50; Dinner-$11; and, Room-$2)
Day Two: Phakding to Namche Bazaar (Walking Time: 5.5 hours. Elevation: Phakding-2800m; Namche-3420m)
Today we got some proper exercise and our first view of Everest. Surprisingly, our legs were not traumatized by our previous day’s exertions but today would be our first real test of our trail legs. The walk climbs steadily up the valley and winds through a number of attractive villages (Toktok, Benkar, Chumoa, and Monjo). Monjo was previously the spot for the picking up permits for the region but now this has moved up the hill to Namche. We almost missed our first few view of Everest, which to be honest we weren’t expecting so early in the trek. We got crystal clear views and we had to pinch ourselves since we had gotten such bad luck with mountain views elsewhere on the trip. A fellow trekker commented that he was glad for the view since the forecast for the coming ten days was bad. As the days went by, however, we realized that forecasting mountain weather is a tricky business. The bad weather never materialized. Not this day, the next, or any other day on the trail.
There is a village at the foot of the grueling climb up to Namche called Jorsale. Take note of this and grab lunch here. It will be your last chance before your final destination. Our map indicated that there was a lodge some way up the hill and we decided to head for that. The map was wrong; our bellies were grumbling, and our water bottles empty. Very dumb move on our part. Thankfully, an Australian ‘Guardian Angel’ shared his water and we chowed down on a couple of granola bars. The climb up was grueling and underfoot conditions gnarly but we made good time and finally collapsed into the welcoming embrace of the Khangri Hotel. Our host, a fantastic Sherpa lady called Nyima, whipped up a delicious and nutritious Dal Bhat (Rice, Dal, and Veg Curry) lunch.
The Khangri was one of the best lodges we stayed at. The food was fantastic, the rooms warm and clean, and the hosts welcoming and informative. Namche sits in a horseshoe shaped valley overhanging the drop down to the lower valley. It is an incredible setting for a town. Namche is the best place to stock up on last minute trail goodies, clothing and supplies, and the only place in Khumbu with banks and ATMs. We wandered up the hill behind the town to add a few meters to our altitude bank and watched as the town got ‘eaten’ up by the fog that generally rolled up the valley around 3pm. The fog is cold and nasty and a fair reminder that you are now in the mountains.
(Breakfast- $13; Lunch-$12; Dinner- $11; Room- $3)
Day Three: Acclimatization hike to Khunde and Khumjung (Walking time: 5 hours; Elevation: 3900m)
We stayed in Namche Bazaar another day to help with acclimatization. However, we did not sit on our asses and eat apple pie at one of the several splendid bakeries in town. Instead, we headed out on one of the acclimatization hikes recommended in Lonely Planet. There are a number of splendid Sherpa villages in the hills above Namche. Here we experienced our only routefinding failure of the trek: we struggled for an hour to get out of Namche by the route the guidebook suggested. In the end, we went the opposite direction since we could see the way. The walk headed up towards the Hotel Everest View, allegedly the world’s highest full service hotel. An airstrip backs on to the hotel but it is long defunct. The aim of the hotel was to lure the rich and the famous. They even went so far as to pressurize rooms and pump in oxygen to help with AMS. This ridiculous scheme was soon shown to be daft and dangerous, and the hotel became the expensive option for those willing to cough up a bit more. The views are damn good though! We had a clear view up the valley to Everest, Lhotse, Thamserku, and Ama Dablam, which is surely one of the world’s most beautiful peaks.
The two villages were extremely idyllic, if a bit austere, and were genuine Sherpa villages rather than focused on the tourist trade. Both villages had lovely monasteries (with Yeti relics if you are a believer!) and typically friendly locals.
The fog rolled in early today so we hotfooted it back to Namche to wrap up warm. In the afternoon, we watched the daily showing of a film called ‘Sherpas: Unsung Heroes of Everest’ at the Café 8848. The film focuses on a commercial climbing group aiming to conquer Everest and the Sherpas who risk their lives to help them. The Sherpas did just fine but the Italian guy hoping to make an ascent without oxygen supplements died on his descent. Fairly harrowing stuff and a reminder of the dangers lurking in the mountains.
(Breakfast-$13; Lunch-$12; Dinner-$11; Room-$3; tea and cake-$4)
Day Four: Namche to Tengboche (Walking time: 4 hours. Elevation- Tengboche: 3870m)
I was really looking forward to this day. Tengboche is the site of the most important monastery in the region. The monastery is usually flooded with foreign tourists for its famed Mani Rimdu festival. More correctly, the ‘festival’ is a series of complex rituals that spans several weeks. Foreigners usually show up for the colorful masked dances that are early on in the series and the only part of the rituals that could be classed as ‘entertainment’. I had studied Mani Rimdu in depth at college and although the event had passed I was excited to see the monastery that had so intrigued me at school.
Before that, though, we had the small matter of a few hundred meters’ descent and a sturdy few hundred meters’ ascent. We opted to take the ‘easy’ path via Chhorkung, which is at the northeastern edge of Upper Namche. The trail follows a ridge round and before long insane drops to the river and stupendous views of Ama Dablam and Everest assail your senses. We also had our first views of Himalayan wildlife. We saw a number of Himalayan monal (colorful pheasant type birds) and a small herd of goatlike Himalayan tahr on the slopes below us. There are a number of picturesque stupas on the trail, which provide an attractive foreground to those inevitable shots of the high peaks.
We passed through the lovely village of Kyangjuma and noted it as a potential stop-off for future hikes! At Sanasa, the trail splits. Sadly, EBC hikers have to take the low road to the river before heading back up to Tengboche ridge. The low road heads to the delightfully named Phunki Tenga. I don’t know whether it is ‘funky’ or ‘punky’ but it was sure as hell pretty! If you have had a late start, it is probably worth stopping off here for lunch but as we are suckers for punishment we decided to head up the hill and grab lunch at our final destination.
The trail up was steep, dry, and dusty. It was about 600m up and there is very little water available. The trail tops out at a series of seriously photogenic stupas and mani walls. The village sits below the mighty peak of Thamserku and there are unbelievable views of Everest and Lhotse up valley. A small hill at the far edge of Tengboche is festooned with prayer flags, which also mark out a pleasant acclimatization hike up to a precariously perched stupa and beyond. The lodges here are a little dark and lack the homely touches of the Khangri, but the Tashi Delek Lodge cooked up some tasty tucker, our room had an Everest view, and the dining room was a fine place to meet other trekkers.
Late afternoon, we headed to the monastery for the 3pm ‘performance’. The performance was a half-hearted puja (ritual), attended by three monks, and thirty trekkers. It clearly was set up for tourists to get a quick fill of ‘Tibetan exotica’, and after ten minutes the monks stopped chanting, announced ‘finished’, and shut up shop. Pretty amusing all round!
The night was shockingly cold. It must have been 20 below zero. This was a real worry since we weren’t even at very high elevation and Laura had already slept in all her clothes (down jacket and all!). Thankfully, this night proved to be a one-off cold snap and we didn’t meet such temperatures again until we got to the real high (and cold) points.
(Breakfast-$13; Lunch-$12; Dinner-$8.50; Room- $3; Monastery donation- $2)
Trail food: a brief digression
Most lodges have preposterously long menus. Although the food is certainly not cordon bleu you won’t lack for variety. In the main though, the food comes down to porridges, eggs, and toast for breakfast; and soups, noodles, potatoes, pastas, curries, and rice for lunch and dinner. For sure, other stuff is available but mountain pizza ain’t so great! Meat eaters will have to make do with Yak, which is tender and tasty. Cheese is plentiful and good courtesy of the Naks (female yaks), which every self-respecting Sherpa owns. Many villages have damn fine bakeries, which serve up excellent apple pie and passable chocolate cake. Espresso machines have also made a welcome appearance, courtesy of the marketing departments of Lavazza and Illy. Espresso drinks are expensive, however, so budget travelers would do best to exhibit extreme self-control! Beer is available everywhere and the locals seem inordinately proud of the locally owned Khumbu Kolsch. Laura swilled down a pint at the end of the trek and whilst it is better than the average Asian lager, it wouldn’t register on the taste buds of a confirmed IPA man!
We typically survived on Tsampa (roasted barley) porridge with peanut butter (we bought a jar of peanut butter in Namche Bazaar that was worth every bit of added weight for the extra energy and protein), a chunk of Tibetan bread with jam, and coffee and tea for breakfast. For lunch, we downed a dal bhat (typical Nepali meal of rice, lentil soup, and vegetable curry) if we were super hungry or a bowl of hearty Sherpa stew (pasta, vegetables, and potatoes) if we were less ravenous. For dinner, we would usually go for Dal Bhat, fried noodles or potatoes with egg and veg, or pasta.
Since there are lodges almost every twenty minutes you really don’t need to stress and overly plan lunch stops.
Day Five: Acclimatization Day in Tengboche (Walking time: 3 hours. Elevation: 4100m)
Not everyone takes an acclimatization day at Tengboche, but seeing others suffering on the trail the next day, we are glad we did. We took an easy stroll up the hill behind the village following the very obvious line of prayer flags at the village end. The walk has a generally easy to follow path and is dotted with the occasional aging and crumbling stupa. Some hardy types made it up to the top of the hill, but we stopped some 150m short of the summit since we couldn’t be arsed to clamber over the odd patch of icy snow. Nevertheless, we got great views of Ama Dablam and further encouraged our bodies to produce a few more blood cells to help us at higher elevations.
In the afternoon, we strolled down to Deboche a couple of hundred meters below the ridge and visited the old nunnery there. Sadly, the nunnery had suffered quite badly in the earthquake but the villagers were already busy rebuilding it. After a day of minor exertions, we barely deserved any baked good treats but the apple crumble at the village bakery looked SO good that we quickly succumbed. Later, the afternoon clouds parted and we got the first colorful sunset of the trek, starring Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse.
(Breakfast-$12.40; Lunch-$8; Dinner-$10; Pie and Tea-$6; Room-$3; Battery charge-$3)
Wow! Only 5 days in and spectacular views were already indelibly etched on our minds. Another two weeks to go. I will be posting on the next five days or so of the trek soon. But, I hope I have already whetted your appetite for a visit yourself.
Photos: Lukla to Tengboche